The setting in a Northampton hotel breakfast bar is low key, and the conversation is relaxed, but there are many moments during an interview with Ronan O’Gara when it feels like I am in the presence of a future great coach in Test rugby.
The depth of his intelligence, curiosity and conviction is obvious but, beyond the gravitas, O’Gara also has a light touch. When I ask him if, while turning La Rochelle into the champions of Europe last year, he sometimes had to be an actor to instil belief into a previously unfashionable club, he shakes his head in amusement. “One of my greatest strengths and weaknesses is that I can’t act,” O’Gara says.
His smile becomes steely as he stresses how this apparent failing sharpens the authenticity of his work. “Exactly. It’s also very important because I’ve seen previous coaches put on a mask or try and be something they’re not. The people you coach are too smart to be fooled that way. But you have to remember we’re playing sport. It’s meant to be enjoyable and these are meant to be the best days of your life. We don’t work. We play sport.”
That sense of enjoyment taps into the rich variety of O’Gara’s first 10 years in coaching. After spending his whole career at Munster, where he made 240 appearances in 16 years, O’Gara moved to Paris to start coaching at Racing. After four years he made another radical shift and flew to New Zealand to become the assistant coach of the Crusaders.
If you produce at club level, the obvious step is you go on to produce at Test level
Two seasons of Super Rugby transformed his outlook and he returned to France as head coach of La Rochelle in 2019. Last season he also became their director of rugby and took complete control as La Rochelle swept all before them in Europe. In the Champions Cup final they beat Leinster, who comprise most of the Ireland side, as O’Gara’s coaching credentials became even more striking.
Having won 128 caps for Ireland, while scoring 1,083 Test match points. O’Gara is steeped in Irish rugby. His success in France also means that there is already talk he might, one day, become the first foreigner to coach Les Bleus. And then, last November, he was courted by the RFU as they met him to discuss his interest in coaching England. O’Gara is still intrigued by the England job but he remains fiercely committed to La Rochelle for the foreseeable future.
“What I’m doing now is incredibly satisfying,” O’Gara says, “but a bit of me would love to have a crack at a World Cup. It’s not something that’s unattainable or unreachable. If you produce at club level, the obvious step is you go on to produce at Test level.”
Such clear ambition in O’Gara is intensified as we approach a new Six Nations. The grand old tournament is made even more enticing by the fact that, this year, it offers a sizeable step towards the World Cup which begins in France in September. Ireland and France lead the current world rankings and their clash in Dublin, a week on Saturday, will be fascinating. O’Gara believes that New Zealand and England will be just behind them when the World Cup begins.
He leans forward when asked if it is too soon to decide whether Ireland or France are in better shape. “No, it’s not too early at all. At the Stade de France, the last time they played, France blew Ireland off the pitch for the early parts of the game and then the Irish fitness and organisation started to bear fruit. Ireland had a chance to win the game late on.
“Even considering how good France are, I would still probably fancy Ireland to win in the Aviva. But there’d be very little in it. I think these are two absolute quality teams and it’ll just be interesting to see from a strategy point of view how they go about breaking each other down because there are very few weaknesses on either side.”
In World Cup terms O’Gara favours the French. “There’s massive excitement already and we know that France, with full grounds and their nation behind them, do sporting events very well. If you ask who are favourites then, for me, it’s France. They have a lot going for them especially if you take the travel factor away which, for the French, is big. They’re very at ease on their own patch.”
The rise of Ireland has been thrilling for O’Gara but, in beating Leinster in the European final last year, La Rochelle showed a way to conquer the world’s leading team. How many Leinster players from that day will start in the Six Nations? “Thirteen, maybe?” O’Gara says. “But there’s 20 [Leinster players] now for this [Six Nations] camp.”
There was an enormous support behind Leinster for the final but we believed in our plan on how we go about depowering them
Did he have to do a lot of work in preparing La Rochelle psychologically, for the challenge of playing a club that was virtually a Test team on its way to becoming the leading nation in international rugby?
“It’s a fascinating question,” O’Gara says as he strips back the layers surrounding the French rugby psyche. “We got Montpellier at home in the quarter-final and the boys were all wishing we were going to Harlequins. They don’t like French on French but, for me, I was thinking, home advantage is huge. We had beaten Leinster [at home] in the semi-final the year previously. It was Covid times but, if you dissect that game, the better team won.
“There was an enormous support behind Leinster for the final but we believed in our plan on how we go about depowering them. I knew our attack would work well but it’s the other 50 per cent, how you depower an attack, that for me is very important.
“In every lineout situation, when you have Pierre Bourgarit and Jonathan Danty looking after the first collision, and Uini Atonio and Greg Alldritt on the second collision, it’s hard to win the gainline against these guys. I also don’t think there’s an international team in the world with the amount of poachers we have. We have Danty, [Levani] Botia, Alldritt, Atonio, Bourgarit and Will Skelton who is good at it too. There’re about seven of them and no other team has that. These boys are powerful.”
France have the physicality to match Ireland but, as O’Gara suggests, so much hinges on their brilliant scrumhalf, Antoine Dupont. “If Dupont doesn’t play for France?” O’Gara says, shrugging. “For me he’s nearly 30 per cent of them. He’s so special. It’s different with Ireland. Johnny [Sexton] is an excellent player but he wouldn’t have the capacity to do what Dupont can do on a rugby pitch. But the gulf to the next [Irish No 10] is very big, which puts pressure on [Sexton]. In France you’re still spoilt for choice at 9.”
In his old position at 10, France have Romain Ntamack who is only 23 but, in O’Gara’s view, “very mature. It’ll be interesting because France seem to go away a lot from their capacity to strike from anywhere. It’s fascinating how a lot of the data suggests if you kick the ball more and longer you’ve a far greater chance of winning. In certain games [the French wing Damian] Penaud wanted to attack but you could see him thinking of what he was told in the week: ‘You’ve got to kick.’ That’s not a strength of his game. Of course you have to respect the support [staff] and listen to what the data is telling you. But I know there are certain scenarios where the French could just put the foot down and play.”
Ireland are underpinned by their exemplary coaching group. “[Head coach] Andy Farrell has an excellent temperament. [Forwards coach] Paul O’Connell is unique, very special. [Defence coach] Simon Easterby is a really good guy. [Scrum coach] John Fogarty has really great human traits. I went on a Lions tour with [attack coach] Mike Catt and he’s a good guy with the experience of coaching Italy which means he learned enormous resilience and the capacity to grow in adversity. He now has really good cattle to work with and Ireland look more threatening with the ball than they have in the past.”
Ireland, however, do not have the playing resources of France and England and so, for O’Gara, “it will be interesting to see their capacity to respond if their strength in depth is tested. Their top 25 are very strong. But they need those players [to stay fit].”
Is Ireland against France the Six Nations’s pivotal match? “No, because France also have England away. England most definitely have the firepower to trouble whoever they play. And with a new coach [in Steve Borthwick] their players realise that now is my time to make my mark. [Manu] Tuilagi is interesting for them and he probably sends fear into the opposition. He has a big presence. If he’s missing, England feel it. But there are a lot of back three and halfback options. They’ll be competitive and dogged up front.”
The competitor in you wants to coach the best players and have the opportunity to win the highest competitions in the world
O’Gara feels that England “on a dry day could easily play [Marcus] Smith and [Owen] Farrell together. But no matter how skilled top players are, when it pisses out of the heavens and there’s a wind you have to think about catch and pass and its advantage defence.”
He makes it clear that, whatever the conditions, “I would set my team up on Farrell. Some competitors just stand out. I like guys who prepare to win – and Farrell does. I’d love to get inside that mind to see what I could stimulate but that boat will have sailed for me, unfortunately.”
How close was O’Gara to the England job? “I don’t know the percentage but it caused a lot of interest, even disbelief [that he would consider coaching England]. I couldn’t be prouder of where I come from, from Cork in Ireland. But then you become a professional coach and the competitor in you wants to coach the best players and have the opportunity to win the highest competitions in the world. It doesn’t dilute anything about me if I coach England. I would still be very proud of where I’m from, but it’s a job with an enormous excitement factor. The same as the Ireland job, same as coaching the All Blacks.”
Ireland might be his first choice but would he also like to coach France one day? “I’d love to, yeah. Such strength, depth and quality, passionate supporters, great country. I don’t know if it would ever happen because I don’t know if they can [choose a foreign coach]. But all these rules are broken nowadays.”
For now, O’Gara’s focus remains fixed on La Rochelle where his new contract runs until 2027. “I won’t be going anywhere after this World Cup – that’s for certain. The reality is that Andy Farrell has done an excellent job so he’ll be with Ireland and I have this great project in La Rochelle.”
But an intriguing Six Nations, and a looming World Cup, will sharpen O’Gara’s voracious appetite. Watching Ireland, France and England, and knowing that he could coach any one of them in the future, will make him study the game he loves even more deeply. Test rugby’s next great coach is on his way to the world stage. ― Guardian